“Ah. Captain Aaron.”
He’d had a solid three and a half hours in the rack and looked to be much refreshed.
Paul had shaved, showered, and kitted himself out in rational fashion.
There was a pistol at the waist, and he’d put his long gun in the rack by the door under his name, labeled there by some anonymous trooper. Anonymous warm bodies did these odd little jobs. People came and went on various errands one must assume had been assigned by somebody somewhere. Unlike her, he’d opted for the forest camouflage pattern, with all the regulation patches and insignia. A careful suppression of individual personality, there was no mistaking who he was—a senior officer, one accustomed to being obeyed, and not taking too many noes for answers. It made sense. To show up in the blacksuit first day on the job would be a little too much. That was reserved for her and her alone, apparently.
Her command appeared to be coming together.
“Good evening, Colonel. Can someone bring me up to speed?”
“Hang on, Paul. Yes?”
“Report from Corporal Haliwell over at the warehouse.”
“Warehouse? What warehouse?”
“That’s the one where they’re assembling the drones. Colonel.”
A map of the town came up and a location was marked. It was in the northeast, far from the airport to the west and the city centre.
“Very well. Put him on.”
Vicky Chan was there, making hand motions.
“You’re relieved, Major. Get some sleep.”
Vicky slumped in relief, and turned away without further talk. She headed for the door.
The picture changed and there was Mike.
“Stick tight, Captain. We’ll fill you in as we go along.” There was a half-hour overlap on shift changes for just this reason.
Wheeler was just coming in the door and Dona waved her over.
“Report, Corporal Haliwell.”
“Okay, Colonel. We’ve got one drone assembled and the other two are well underway. Not bad for three or four untrained people, but the manuals were in the crates and we found all the tools we needed. They have a small fleet of trucks and forklifts, and so there’s a repair shop here as well.”
“Trooper Noya is just charging the batteries and testing the systems. He says the speed control is a pain in the ass to set up. He’s been reading the manual. He says he needs to turn on the radio and would like permission to do so.”
Thoughts raced. The drone radio system would have much longer range than their personal, battlefield units. It was a control circuit, dedicated. No voice, no pictures, no sound, although data streamed back and forth…Noya was still an unknown quantity, and therein lay the hesitation.
It was also encrypted and on a secure military frequency. The Unfriendlies might take a while to intercept and identify its very short signal bursts…
“Very well. Tell him to keep it short—no chatter-bugs, okay. Where the hell are you guys, anyways?”
“It’s a little industrial park. The beauty of it is, it’s not all that developed. We’re on the outskirts of town. It’s ten or fifteen hectares and about three buildings. They’ve taken out all the trees and it’s a lot of grass and weeds. There’s a straight road, ten metres wide, five hundred metres long and with low trees at both ends. There are streetlights, but the cables are all underground. Noya says we should have no trouble taking off from here if we want.” If asked, they could shoot out most of the lights for night-time operations.
For the time being, it was better to keep it looking like no one was home and presenting no big changes in the overhead view to any enemy surveillance.
“Okay, I will have to think about that.”
Inwardly, she thanked her predecessor, and that was some real foresight. Sooner or later, she’d have to write some kind of report…it would be best not to leave Colonel Race out. The corporal waited patiently, leaving the ball in her court.
“That’s a good idea though, to use it as a miniature airfield. What’s your impression?”
“We have weapons available. Missiles, smoke, flares. Riot-gas. Anti-personnel bombs. Even a pair of light machine guns. They’re very adaptable. Noya says the thing is big enough to carry a couple of hundred kilos, maybe more. Wingspan about nine metres. There are some mini drop-tanks for it too, we were wondering if the enemy has that—they probably do, right? For the time being, battlefield reconnaissance seems to be a higher priority.” It was best to preserve the drones for as long as possible.
“I agree. What about the other ones?”
“They’re ninety percent assembled. At least now people can see what goes where, and when it comes in the sequence. Noya’s plane had two washers, about three screws and a couple of nuts and bolts left over. He says they miscounted at the factory when they were putting the hardware packages together. It’s as good an answer as any. We should have them up and running in a couple more hours. The thing is, we need to test the first one to make sure we got it right.”
“Can you launch by dawn?”
The odds of the Unfriendlies getting moving any time sooner than that seemed unlikely. With a force of that size, it might even be days.
“I think so. Probably, assuming the thing flies and that we can fly it.” There were control consoles for each machine, presumably in factory condition.
The ground stations and the aircraft each had a transmitter and a receiver. All of that would have to be assembled, tested and fine-tuned. The consoles were also used for training, simulating through VR what a real flying machine might do, and giving the soldiers a bit of experience.
That was Noya’s problem, and Haliwell’s.
“Roger that. Keep us posted—and crack open those missiles.”
The Proctor drones were capable of light missile attack, as well as surveillance, jamming and laser-designation for heavier weapons launched from other systems. They could be controlled by radio, laser, and they also had good autonomous functionality.
“How big is that warehouse? Could we hide something fairly large in there? I’m thinking of vehicles, or maybe even civilian helicopters.”
“Ah—probably. It’s probably three-quarters full in here. We could move some stuff around, make some room. What did you have in mind, Colonel?”
“Nothing yet. It’s just a thought.”
“Yes, Colonel. Oh—oh, wait. We could use a bit of relief, or maybe even just a good meal and some rest.”
“Do what you can, Corporal. We don’t have too many people to spare.”
“All right. We’ll figure something out.”
“Send someone into town and get what you want. Use a civilian van or pickup truck. Get beds, blankets and pillows if you want. The bill will be paid, and that’s all anyone needs to know. If you need cash, we’ll send someone around. Okay? Over.”
“Thank you, Colonel. Over.”
Dona was nearing the end of her short shift, officers working four on and four off until the situation became clearer. Rear echelon troops were working twelves, and forward elements were essentially on duty until relieved, catching food and rest when they could. They would only be able to keep that up for so long, and in an emergency, both main shifts would man the defenses behind the front-line if that term held any real meaning in modern warfare.
“Ah, Captain Herzon.”
“Good morning. Colonel.” It was the middle of the night, the Unfriendlies were still unloading, and their fire-teams were still observing.
Dressed in forest camouflage, he seemed calm and cool as they studied the screens. Inside the vehicle, the helmet was off but he still had the headset. It was all night-vision, ambient light at his end, with its eerie green and black tones, glittering highlights and not much else.
“Our people are about ready to begin the advance again.”
All they were waiting for was the word. They’d laid up for a few hours of darkness, assessing the situation and wondering about that enemy satellite.
“Hmn. The southwest isn’t a problem. My people can use the cover to best advantage, although vehicles are always going to be a problem.”
The roads, on the other hand, were both an advantage and a liability, depending on how they were used.
“Move out as soon as you’re ready. Use the dispersed formation.”
This would eliminate the possibility of them all being taken out at once.
Other than that, it was always going to be a gamble.
And being seen, selectively, was part of the plan.
“Takeoff in one minute.”
The sky was brightening quickly, with low cloud hanging over the hills and the promise of rain imminent.
Dona and Captain Aaron studied the proposed track. There was nothing to suggest. Noya had laid out a beeline course for the patrol station just north of Deneb City, planning to cruise all the way in fuel-saving mode. They had enough credible intelligence, they could ignore the highway for the moment.
“Data feed is good. Cameras and sensors are good. Motor’s good. Batteries are good. Control is good. Throttle up. Rolling.”
Unheard in the control room, the motor revs climbed. Noya released the brakes and she was moving, at first imperceptibly, and then with more authority.
A few seconds passed, virtual needles on the instrument display climbing their circular course.
Noya fiddled with a knob on the control board.
Listening intently, Dona heard the faint buzz of a faux-motor sound, useful as a kind of subconscious feedback to the pilot…at least that way he knew the motor was running and he didn’t have to keep looking at the revs.
Noya was taking off into a bit of a crosswind, but he seemed to be doing okay with a bit of pressure on the foot-pedals and some right rudder…
The nose lifted, the view slewed slightly to the right, and she was airborne.
“Estimated time of arrival on-station…about forty minutes. We could get there faster, but I want to feel her out a bit.”
“Roger that. Carry on, Trooper.”
“Thank you, Colonel.”
“Corporal Haliwell?” Onscreen, he was standing behind Noya’s chair, hand on the man’s shoulder.
“How are those other two machines coming along?”
“Might be another hour or so, Colonel. That’s mostly because we’re going to be hanging missile-racks and some other hard-points on them. First we have to test the systems. Over.”
“How does that thing handle?”
“Ah. Well. It’s not the most maneuverable thing in the world. It’s built for stability as much as anything.” His face was intent, the interruption unwelcome but unavoidable.
“Roger that.” He was on radar now.
The track was appearing on the big board in the command centre, curving around and heading to the southwest as the machine climbed out. Noya was ignoring her, concentrating on learning the machine.
“Basically, it almost flies itself. Ah, assuming we have the balance and the trim correct.”
She watched him fiddle with the knobs, and then take his hands off the controls completely.
The machine held its course, speed and altitude pretty well, at least in the first thirty or so seconds. Throttle set, it was gently climbing. He reached down and put in one more click of down-trim on the elevators. Noya reduced power, the machine started coming down again, and he adjusted the elevator trim back up again. He was staying low, the radar-sensors all reading negative.
“All right. There you go, Colonel.” He looked up, into the camera lens.
There was a quick grin.
“I have to admit, I’m kind of impressed.”
“Very well. Carry on, and good work.” It was as good a time as any to shut up.
With Captain Aaron in the hot-seat, Dona took a walk, down the stairs and out through the fabrication shop, now mostly empty. There were a few vehicles, people and weapons. One or two of the vehicles were getting serviced, an oil change and a tune-up by the looks of it going by.
Tools clanked and men and women, backs to her and heads down in the engine, muttered to each other, oblivious to her passage.
They were well in from the doors, several of which were still open. The bright glare of the day was blinding, exacerbating a slight headache that had been developing since awakening.
An unmistakable smell assailed her nostrils and her stomach resonated in sympathy. In a few short hours, she’d completely forgotten what fresh air was.
The place was fairly large, tall walls of blank, beige metal siding with dark brown trim, and a puff of blue came from around the far, southeastern corner.
This was worth investigating.
Turning the corner, she stopped dead.
“Hey, it’s Colonel Graham. Hey, Colonel, want a cheeseburger?”
Her mouth closed then opened again. The kid had three big barbecues all lined up in a row, all of them going. There was a row of coolers, small picnic tents in case of rain. There was another trooper, looking sheepish in a genuine chef’s apron and tall white hat.
The troops had taken the precaution of donning grubby civilian coveralls…the boots blended in fairly well, and there were no weapons visible. The possibility, or probability, of an enemy satellite coloured every thought.
The thing just had to be up there.
“Sure. Why not.” The truth was, she was ravenous. “Well. It looks like you people are doing all right.”
“Ah, yes, Colonel.” A young man, not the least bit intimidated, was opening up bags of buns and putting them on the rear upper rack for toasting.
There were a dozen and a half meat patties on each grille, most looking close to being done.
There were a few picnic tables and shade trees, now mostly bare in the branches, where company employees gathered during better times.
The troops had paper plates, plastic cutlery, condiments, cheese slices and a big bowl of chopped onions. Tomatoes and lettuce! Holy. A company pickup came up from the far side and halted.
Doors slammed, more people were arriving, bearing gifts and booty in the ubiquitous paper sacks favoured by Denebians.
“Well. Not exactly messing about, eh?”
“No, Ma’am.” There was a quick ripple of laughter from those who caught it.
Someone proffered a colourful paper plate and the young man took it.
“Here, Colonel, take two, they’re not very big.” It was a lie, but the grin made up for it—
“Ah, thank you. This looks good.”
“Yeah, I’m looking forward to it myself, ma’am. Come on people, don’t be shy. Grab your plates and get in line. What’s the matter, you ain’t never seen a colonel before?”
With a quiet snicker, Dona moved over and grabbed a seat on the end of a picnic table, framed in two-by-fours since time immemorial and stained a deep, rusty red.
A young trooper, freckle-faced and tow-headed, came along, balancing a plate and pressed-paper bowl of chips and a cold can of grape soda. There weren’t too many empty spaces.
She nodded, indicating a seat.
With a blush and a quick glance around, he sat across from her, head down. There was a jerk and he began to rise.
“Would you like a drink, Colonel?” The pale blues eyes could barely meet hers, and that face was growing redder by the second.
“Why, yes, thank you.”
“Ah—what kind you want?” He was from Kessel, going by the accent, a bit of a cross between Dutch and something else.
If he was a day over eighteen, she would have been very much surprised.
“A grape soda would be lovely, trooper.”
He was gone again.
The poor kid was so young, she was old enough to be his mother. Assuming one had started young—popping out them babies at seventeen or eighteen like a proper woman should.
The burger was a bit pink in the middle, but it wouldn’t kill her and this was a good opportunity for them get a look at her. A little salt might have helped.
Watching as he plunged into the small crowd, he elbowed his way to the cooler. She liked that calm, cool bit of aggression, which might have been what led him to enlist in the first place.
The Colonel wants a pop, and you guys had better get out of my way…
It struck Dona that this must be part of her mobile reserve force.
(End of excerpt.)
Image one. Confederation Public Communications Office.
Image two. Anakonda
Image three. CPCO
Image four. CPCO
Image five. Denebloa-Seven Defense Force
Louis Shalako has books and stories available from Amazon.
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